13 Characteristics of Highly Effective Career Conversations

Effective Career Conversations

It’s a sad fact that people can often identify memorably bad career conversations more easily than effective career conversations. Particularly if one was of significant positive value to them

Like that time at the end of a not particularly glowing performance appraisal when your boss asked you where you wanted to be in 5 years.  All you could think was “anywhere but here working for you.”  So you just looked at him blankly and you could see in his eyes that he was really frustrated with you.  Horrible at the time (thank goodness you don’t work for him anymore!)  But when you think about it a bit more you realise that you’ve had many other more positive conversations about your career. 

That is the precise reason I ask people in my Career Conversations workshops to think about a career conversation that was of significant positive value to them so we can draw out the characteristics that make them so effective.  And the following 13 are ones that come up time and time again.

So for your employees to have positive career conversations that will help them take ownership of their career development, bear these in mind.

Characteristics of Effective Career Conversations

1) Not necessarily with “the boss”

When it comes to who has the most effective career conversations, the consistent view is that it’s not necessarily the boss.  The fundamental priority is the person is objective, has the best interests of the individual at heart and has no underlying agenda.  And for all those reasons, this makes your career conversations can be difficult for the immediate line manager.  Eventually, career conversations do need to take place between employees and their managers but that might be the place to finish rather than start the conversation.

2) Often take place informally

Good career conversations often take place outside any formal management or HR process. Or they may take place in what we might call  ‘semi-formal’ settings (such as mentoring discussions, regular progress meetings, follow-up meetings after an appraisal).  Although good conversations can take place in formal HR processes such as appraisal, they’re not all that frequent.

3) Sometimes are unplanned

Most meetings where good conversations take place are planned but they can also be spontaneous and unplanned. Valuable conversations with friends and work colleagues, for example, often happen spontaneously.

4)  Don’t have to take a long time

Good conversations usually take time, say three-quarters of an hour to an hour.  But sometimes a short first conversation is useful as a prelude to setting up a longer meeting.  Sometimes a single conversation on its own can be pivotal, but often several conversations are needed to make progress

5)  Provide different levels of support at different times

Employees often need career support at defining points like starting a new role, considering a job move (internally or externally) or when they come to the end of a development or training programme.  At other times a lighter touch is needed.

6)  Focus on who they are, what they want and why

A good career conversation can cut through the noise to help employees focus on where they’re at and reduce unnecessary stress.  Discussing how they feel about their current job and career can clarify matters and unload some negative emotions which can get in the way of positive thought and action.

7)  Help individuals reflect on their experience

Career conversations can help people reflect on what’s important to them in their career – What skills do they like to use?  What activities do they enjoy most?  What are their values in relation to work?  What work environment do they prefer?  What people do they enjoy working with?

8)  Enable clarity of direction

In an effective career conversation, people will reflect on what their own ambitions really are.  In other words, what does success look like for them?  Helping them connect their personal values and career wishes ignites their passion and triggers the desire to develop.

9) Develop self-awareness by holding up a mirror

Good career conversations build confidence.  They hold up a mirror so individuals reflect on their skills and performance, think about the feedback they’ve received, what their strengths and weaknesses are and how people in the organisation see them.  Done well, with a positive focus, that helps them believe in their own ability.

10)  Enable a change of perspective

An effective career conversation challenges individuals to think differently.  They help individuals challenge the status quo and move out of their comfort zone to consider what opportunities are available to them – in their current role and elsewhere in the organisation?

11)  Aid decision making

Quality career conversations help individuals identify and evaluate different alternatives and opportunities, look at the pros and cons and make a decision.  Or if not a final decision,  at least greater clarity about where they want to go and the development or experience needed to get there.

12)  Build networks and organisational understanding

People often need support in navigating the processes and politics of the organisation.  Career conversations can help them develop an understanding of how things are done ‘around here’, including both processes and tactics.  They can help them decide how to raise their profile and be more visible to key people.  And they can help them work out how to crack the system for moving jobs if that’s what they want to do.

13)  End with action

Good conversations usually lead to action.  There is a clear focus on theSo what?”  What career development strategies can they use to make progress?  What actions can they take?.  And there’ll also be an agreement on how they’re going to check in and review progress.


These are the key characteristics I’ve identified that make effective career conversations.  Wondering how to put them into practice? Click the link below to download a free copy of the ebook It’s Good to Talk! A Practical Guide to Career Conversations in the Workplace.

Click here to download It’s Good to Talk! A Practical Guide to Career Conversations in the Workplace >>


You may also be interested in our Manager’s Guide to Career Conversations and our Career Conversation Toolkit.  Together, they will help you engage, retain and develop your employees.


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